With authority, Craig Anderson popped pucks off his blocker, snared them with his trapper.
If a visitor to the Senators’ Thursday afternoon practice had been away in recent weeks, he would have figured this was “business as usual,” to borrow a quote from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Anderson occupying one net at Scotiabank Place. Backup Alex Auld in the other. Seemingly business as usual, except that this was Anderson’s first full practice in three weeks, since slicing a tendon in his baby finger in a kitchen accident on Feb. 22.
Ottawa’s starter these days is neither of the above, but rookie Ben Bishop, given the day to rest after Wednesday’s 3-2 shootout loss in Montreal. Bishop will start again against the Canadiens at home on Friday. He may even face the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Place Saturday.
We know this much. It won’t be Anderson. Following practice, he said he needs a few more practice days before he can think about starting again.
“It’s getting there, every day is a process, getting better and better,” said Anderson, terming his first full session with his teammates an “uplifting experience.”
While Anderson declined to speculate on a possible return date, if things progress as they have, his rehab could be down to a matter of days instead of weeks. Anderson and the coaching staff want to see how his right (blocker) hand responds on Friday after taking it for a 30-plus minute test drive Thursday.
“Only practising once with them after sitting for three weeks, I need more than just one day of practice to get back into the rhythm of the NHL, the speed and the shots,” Anderson said. “I need a few more days.
“I didn’t use the hand for a couple of weeks, so obviously there are some strength issues I need to resolve. It’s coming back pretty rapidly.”
That is music to the ears of Sens Army, despite the commendable job the Senators’ goalie prospects have done in Anderson’s absence.
For the bonus season to come — the Stanley Cup playoffs — the Senators need the man who has delivered 29 of their 36 victories to date. Who didn’t watch those consecutive shootout losses to Buffalo and Montreal without thinking Anderson could have won those games. It was the presence of Anderson, on the nights when his young team needed him most, that helped turn playoff talk from an early season joke to a March reality.
Wisely, neither the club nor the goalie is about to rush him back before he’s ready. If it’s possible, the Senators need the same Anderson that was 10-2, including two shootout victories, in the 12-game stretch starting on New Year’s Eve; the Anderson who went 4-0-1 in the five starts before slicing his pinky.
Head coach Paul MacLean wants to be able to ride that horse once again.
“Of the 11 games we have left, we’d like him to get in as many as he can get in,” MacLean says.
Sure, it would nice to have Anderson available this weekend, if only to help silence the invading Original Six fanatics, including the Blue-and-White hordes hepped up on the green brew of St. Patrick’s Day — a potentially toxic mix. March Madness, indeed.
In the bigger picture, these are niggling games against non-playoff teams sorting themselves out for summer entry draft positions. The worst that could happen for the Senators is that the Habs and Leafs extend what has been a pretty mediocre stretch of games — two regulation wins, two regulation losses and two shootout losses in Ottawa’s past six games.
In nine games sans-Andy, the Senators have at least been able to tread water in the playoff pool, if not quite swim like Olympians. They’ve won four of nine, 4-3-2, with points in six of them.
All four of the victories were delivered by the prospect goalies, Robin Lehner and Bishop, acquired in a Feb. 26 trade with the St. Louis Blues.
Lehner, who doesn’t turn 21 until the summer, was 2-2, including a nifty shutout of the Bruins in Boston. That one put a smile on the face of the mercurial Swede, now back in AHL Binghamton. The 6-7 Bishop, 25, also stood tall, beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 7-3 and New York Rangers 4-1, but he demonstrated a need to tweak his one-on-one play while being touched up by the Sabres and the Habs in shootouts.
Facing six shooters, Bishop yielded three goals, to his obvious frustration. The big guy could have used some run support, especially in Montreal where Masterton nominee Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek all failed in the skills competition.
Would Anderson have won one, if not both of those shootouts? Perhaps. He’s 5-1 in the tricks event, including a victory over Carey Price and the Canadiens on Jan. 14 at the Bell Centre.
What matters now is getting Anderson whole and confident again, before the month is out.
The young goalies have made inspired appearances, hinting at a bright future, but the Senators immediate playoff future rests with the helping (healed) hand of No. 41.